Call it bragging rights, but I get a kick of telling newsrooms that I’m probably the only journalist you know who witnessed (and covered) an actual crucifixion.
However gruesome it may sound, I tackled the story with curiosity as someone who grew up in a country where tradition and superstition often go hand-in-hand. It’s a story I carry with me everywhere I go, and it’s something that somewhat opened my eyes to a different point of view.
This Sunday is Easter and the faithful will celebrate the resurrection of the Messiah. Gatherings will be a tad different than in previous years, but the message remains the same: It’s a time for hope, peace, love and faith.
I wrote this column some years ago for the USA Today Network, and I’d like to share it with our readers here. COVID-19 and the country’s restrictions may have also put a hold to this practice:
I never really understood the concept of enduring physical pain climaxed by crucifixion on Good Friday, all in the name of faith.
Every year, the world watches in horror, curiosity and disbelief as dozens of Filipinos get nailed on the cross to reenact the Passion of Jesus Christ — Christians in the Philippines participate in an annual re-enactment of the crucifixion, though the practice is not supported by the Roman Catholic Church.
Whether you’re Catholic or not, the crucifixion reenactment is a shockingly bold introduction to the Filipino-style Catholic faith. But for some in the Philippines, where more than 80% of the population are Catholics, the reenactments of the crucifixion are an extreme display of devotion.
Growing up in Manila, I questioned the rationale of these people, who supposedly are devout Catholics, along with the thought-process that goes with the ritual. Why in the world would one subject himself to such pain, such misery, such agony?
Was it all for vanity?
Church leaders and health officials have spoken against the practice, which mixes Roman Catholic devotion with folk belief, but the annual rites continue to draw participants and huge crowds, particularly in northern Pampanga province.
My answers came Holy Week in 1991 when I met a Mario Pelitando, a 47-year-old ex-convict living in Manila. He was traveling to the village of San Pedro Cutud, a town north of Manila — crucifixions are a 50-plus-year tradition in Cutud and have attracted thousands of people from all over the world.
Mario was one of a few men that were to be lashed to crosses before having 2-inch nails hammered through their hands and feet. The people who portray the role of Jesus during the crucifixion reenactment say they do it for sacrifice, personal penance, good will and blessings. Over the years, different people have portrayed the role of Jesus, including females and even tourists.
It was one of the rare moments I came down from the mountains, where I was embedded with the Philippine military, to do a story on this phenomenon — there usually is a ceasefire during Holy Week.
I made it a point to follow Mario’s journey, from the Monday-full of prayer to the Friday crucifixion, his 14th.
I spent a great deal of time with him. I slept in a hut next to where he was staying, and immersed myself into his family and his circle. I asked him why ... why in the hell are you doing this?
“It’s very hard for you to understand,” he said in Tagalog. “It’s very hard for everyone to understand.”
Mario was in and out of prison since he was 16. His crimes mostly were burglaries, theft and assault. He grew up dirt-poor in southern Philippines. His family was so poor they only afforded to eat three times a week, and that’s when they were lucky enough to get scraps from a nearby sardines factory.
He stowed away to Manila at age 10 to find a better future, but found none. He ended up in the streets snatching purses and breaking into vehicles and homes. He settled down in Tondo, a rough town in Manila, after his last prison stint and became a locksmith.
So he smiled when I asked him why. He pointed his finger toward the sky and said: “I met Jesus in prison, and he became my best friend on the cross, my cross.”
Several things went through my mind after I heard his answer. I was analytical. Many of these “Kristos” — as the crucified men are called — have gone through this ordeal a number of times. Do they all have the same “sob” story of finding Jesus in prison?
Was this their way of atoning for their sins?
Mario and his wife, Minda, went through the week as they normally did, with the exception of Mario being crucified that Friday. Minda said she will never get used to her husband being hurt like that, being humiliated in front of thousands of people, being in danger of possibly dying on the cross just as Christ did.
“But he deserves it, and Jesus did not,” she told me, weeping. “I will never understand what he is doing, but I have faith he will fulfill his journey with our Lord soon. It’s hard for me, our children, to see him suffer.”
Friday came and I was awakened by yelling on the street. Minda called out to my hut and said Mario has started his “journey.” I rushed out and saw hooded male penitents trudge through the street under the blazing sun while flagellating their bleeding backs with makeshift
whips. Others carried wooden crosses to dramatize Christ’s
sacrifice, one of them was Mario.
His back had old scars from past Good Fridays. He was wearing a makeshift crown of thorns. Minda was in a corner, her eyes swollen from crying all night.
We went on an open field where Mario was crucified.
He never really talked about his “passion.” He would only say he is seeking forgiveness for his criminal past and the sins of his youth. It wasn’t the world that drove him to sin, it was his will to survive the mean streets of Manila. He became a monster during the process, someone who lived in the darkness of his actions.
Without him knowing it, I got my answer soon after the men, who were playing Roman soldiers, raised the cross. Mario was in pain, his eyes showed it.
But then he looked up to the sky and for a glimmer of a moment, his eyes lit up.
And there I saw a man, tormented by years of guilt, at peace.
After crucifixion, Mario was taken to a medical tent to have his wounds bandaged. I came over to check on him and ask him if he needed anything.
“Did you get your answer,” Mario asked me with a grin.
Indeed, I did.
John Mangalonzo is the editor of The Paducah Sun. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @jmangalonzo.